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Q&A: Lora Bartlett on Migrant Teachers: How American Schools Import Labor

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In her new book Migrant Teachers: How American School Import Labor (Harvard University Press; December 2013), Lora Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, studies the patterns and experiences of overseas trained teachers, or OTTs, recruited to teach in the United States. These teachers, largely recruited to fill specialized vacancies in districts of concentrated poverty, faced a series of unique challenges. During the period she researched (2002-2008), the number of OTTs recruited to work in the United States exceeded 90,000, based on visa data.

In an email interview, Bartlett discusses the results of her research into the experiences of OTTs, as well as the broader implications of what these experiences can demonstrate about the perception and practice of teaching as a profession.

In spite of the fact that overseas trained teachers comprise a statistically small demographic when compared to the total number of teachers in the United States (2.5 million), your research and observations seem to indicate that the experiences of the OTT teaching force has broader implications for considering the teaching profession as a whole. What lessons from the experience of OTTs in America would you like to see incorporated into the larger education dialogue?

We have a decision to make about the teaching profession. Do we want a short-term high-turnover workforce or do we value experience and stability in the teaching profession? There are arguments made for both models - advocates of the short-term model emphasize the reduced costs and workforce flexibility of a high turnover model. My work, however, looking at overseas trained teachers highlights the costs of a transient workforce: lower student academic achievement, decreased connection between teachers, and the community and decreased status of the teaching profession.  These are a high cost to pay.

Migrant Teachers demonstrates that we can recruit and retain overseas trained teachers, and they can make important and valuable contributions to improving school environment and student learning. Overseas trained teachers are not inherently a short-term or destabilizing source of labor - but in current practice they are primarily used as a stop-gap measure, framed as interchangeable and treated as low status workers. This conception of teachers' work bleeds over into a framing of the whole profession and threatens to negatively affect both teacher recruitment and retention overall.

How we treat overseas trained teachers says a lot about how we see the teaching profession. We get the teachers we organize for - it is time for us to clearly define the teaching profession we seek and organize for it.

In placing the numbers of overseas trained teachers in their national statistical context, you compare the more than 100,000 overseas trained teachers sought in the U.S. in just one decade (2000-2009) to the only 24,000 teachers recruited by Teach for America (TFA) over two decades. While much of the popular attention paid TFA might be attributed to its exclusivity and contentiousness, the recruitment of overseas trained teachers is also often highly competitive but questionably effective, according to your research.  Why do you think this recruitment of OTTs is so often overlooked in the national education discourse compared to such smaller programs as TFA?

Teacher recruitment programs announce themselves most clearly in the countries in which they recruit. Teach For America announces itself domestically - the programs that bring in overseas trained teachers do so quietly in the United States but are quite pronounced in the source countries.

Overseas trained migrant teachers and Teach for America interns, however, often teach in the same schools. Both programs are short-term, high turnover labor market solutions that place transient teachers in high poverty low achieving schools. 

The school district human resource personnel are very clear. They draw on both overseas teacher recruitment programs and Teach for America to staff their district's hardest to staff schools and they do so because they feel they have no alternative. "It is either substitutes or Filipinos" is how one school administrator characterized her options for possible teacher hires. Others clearly identified that they directed all TFA interns and OTTs to the low performing, high poverty, hard to staff schools.

You present a compelling narrative of how the No Child Left Behind standards for qualified teachers, combined with other factors, led to an increased tide of OTTs over several years. But you also note that the current atmosphere has changed since NCLB was enacted. Has this sharp uptick in recruitment of OTTs had a lasting impact on American education, even after the demand again decreased? How do you see the current education-reform landscape affecting the demand for, and subsequent experiences of, OTTs? Is this discussion of the trends and experiences of OTTs still relevant?

Right now the flow of overseas trained teachers into the United States is ebbing - but the ability to draw on that market and resume the flow is still there. When demand in teacher labor markets declined in the last few years, many school districts stopped hiring overseas and sent scores of teachers back to their home countries. These returned teachers had their U.S. employment terminated without respect to collective bargaining, employment contracts, or unemployment supports.   But they and others remain poised and ready to return once American schools have renewed demand.

Overseas teacher recruitment is a game changer in the framing of the teacher labor market. It shifted the definition of teacher labor markets from a local or even national frame to a global one.  Schools have a larger pool from which to recruit the teachers they need - but in relying on migrant teachers they also circumvent existing current employment structures and practices. The way the temporary work visas now function, schools can terminate a teacher's employment without attention to seniority or contracts by simply opting to not renew visas. Access to an international market alters the way employers think about hiring. In at least one case, a district leader opted to hire overseas trained teachers over local teachers because of the additional workforce flexibility he had with the overseas market.

Finally, what would you like to see as the main take away on the role of OTTs in our schools? Should we be leery of school districts continuing to hire these educators as a short-term teacher supply solution, or optimistic that such teachers can become more effectively incorporated into our education workforce? And if the latter is true, what would it take to make that happen?

Overseas trained teachers are a reality in American public schools. To more effectively incorporate these teachers into our education workforce, we need to stop treating them like a short term, high turnover labor supply. Instead, we can treat overseas trained teachers as much needed, respected, and retainable professionals.

We need to shift the orientation of teacher migration from one of transience to one of transplant. We need to do it because it will improve student-learning conditions, stabilize the teacher workforce, improve the status of the teaching profession, and minimize the negative impact on the source countries and receiving schools.

Improving the retention rates of overseas trained teachers may require a new and special teacher visa category that is keyed to the academic calendar and permits a transition to permanent residency. It will certainly require specialized and improved induction support, ethical recruitment practices, and an expansion of school quality definitions to include higher rates of teacher retention.

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